After reflecting on the past, MIT’s Media Lab is back to the future



It’s Dava Newman, the lab director. The firefighters are nowhere to be found. The alarm appears to have been inadvertently triggered by construction workers. The timing is not great – Newman is expected to host a Media Lab event later this morning with Governor Charlie Baker and Rafael Reif, president of MIT.

In her brief conversation with facility staff, Newman made it clear that she didn’t want her Monday to go off the rails. A moment later, everyone rushes into the building.

Newman – her first name is pronounced day-vuh – took office as director in July, after a tumultuous two-year spell in which it became clear that the former lab director, Joi Ito, had maintained close ties. with the deceased sex and financial offender. Jeffrey Epstein, as a donor and investor in startup investment vehicles managed by Ito. (Ito resigned in September 2019, after being defended by the founder of the lab.) Newman is the first woman to lead the lab in its 36-year history. The goal of the former NASA deputy administrator is clear: to overcome the Epstein controversy as quickly as possible and return the lab to the daily chore of prototyping the future, using cutting-edge technology.

More than many other parts of MIT, the Media Lab has spawned products – and entrepreneurs who created products – that you’ve probably heard of. If your child has learned the Scratch programming language, if you have owned a Lego Mindstorms programmable robot, if you have read books on an e-reader such as The Amazon Kindle, if you’ve played “Guitar Hero” or “Rock Band” video games, all of these things originated in the lab. And when companies like Google or Samsung need smart designers and engineers to create a next-gen product, their first step is often to build a team of Media Lab alumni.

But in three and a half decades, the Media Lab has also surpassed its name. Much of the research going on there has nothing to do with the media. The place has become an interdisciplinary cauldron where researchers work with living organisms, build self-driving bikes that can return on their own to a parking dock when you’re done riding them, and design advanced prosthetic limbs. The latter research group received a $ 24 million donation in September to help them build limbs that could provide a sense of touch to the brain.

A central part of the director’s role is to ensure that funding continues to flow. Much of the lab’s work is funded by companies that pay an annual membership fee to attend lab events and are granted a non-exclusive license for the research carried out there. This list currently includes companies such as Ford, L’Oreal, Walmart, and PTC, a Boston-based software company.

“Our mission is always amazing and far reaching – our vision is to change the world, literally,” Newman said. “So we’ll be working with everyone who shares our values ​​and talking to potential new people who want to work with us. She cleverly avoided wondering if it had required patching up relationships with sponsors who might have been distressed or disappointed by the lab’s ties to Epstein.

But an October 2018 list of member companies included more than 85 companies, and the lab’s website now lists only 41. Local companies that are no longer listed include Biogen, Bose Corp., Fidelity. Investments and General Electric. Lab spokesperson Alexandra Kahn explained via email that “the number of member organizations has always fluctuated for a variety of reasons, such as the general economy in the United States, international markets and certainly this pandemic. As the world returns to normal, we can anticipate the return of some of our members. “

The Media Lab is generally quite good at self-promotion – founding director Nicholas Negroponte was a longtime columnist for Wired Magazine, and Stewart Brand wrote a book on the lab in 1987 – but between Ito’s resignation and the date of Newman’s start in July. , he seemed happy to keep a low profile on certain things. A Director’s Fellows program that Ito launched in 2013, which attracted lesser-known researchers from around the world as well as celebrities, including director JJ Abrams and CNN host Van Jones, has been closed. Neri Oxman, a researcher whose group at the Media Lab received $ 125,000 from Epstein, whom she later said she regretted accepting, left. She announced that she would open her own research and design lab in New York City. His group at the Media Lab, which focused on designs inspired by nature, was disbanded.

In the interregnum between Ito’s and Newman’s leadership, MIT released a detailed 61-page report report of the $ 850,000 in total donations Epstein made to the university and the decision-making process that led to his acceptance. Several Media Lab working groups, Newman says, have focused on “culture, climate and governance” at the lab.

Even if a 2019 Media Lab Press release promised “a future of greater inclusion and transparency”, nothing has been made public about the work of these committees. Kahn said that “the executive committee has provided regular communications and updates to the Media Lab community, but this has not been released publicly.”

In September, the lab hired a new human resources manager, Cesar Mieses, from Harvard University. “You’re going to hear us talk a lot about what the Lab is becoming and how great it is,” Newman says. “And the only way to achieve excellence that I know of is endless diversity and endless combinations.” (This quote, she adds, is from “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry.)

Newman is not a newcomer to MIT: she received her doctorate in aerospace biomedical engineering at school in 1992. and joined the faculty in 1993. In addition to overseeing the Media Lab, she still teaches an MIT course on aerospace biomedical engineering and is working on a book in the field of “bioastronautics,” which examines the effects of travel in aerospace. space – and life on other planets – and seeks to develop technologies that allow humans to do so more safely.

In 2019, many Media Lab alumni were concerned about whether the lab would be able to break out of the cloud created by Ito’s mandate, stressing the importance of greater openness about where its financial support comes from and increased access to the director.

“Joi and Dava are very different,” says Ben Waber, entrepreneur and visiting researcher at the Media Lab. Unlike Ito, who never graduated from a bachelor’s degree, Newman has a solid background in research. “There was this huge excitement internally about his arrival,” he says.

“I’m sure some people think more investigation and reflection is warranted, and others think the process was enough,” says Roy Rodenstein, an entrepreneur who earned his master’s degree in the lab. “The important thing is to have an absolute zero tolerance approach in the future for anything, even a hundredth of the level of what was tolerated before, and that is largely a question. culture on which it is up to professors and students to stay focused.

“I think this is a new chapter for the lab, building on the many strengths of this place,” said Rana el Kaliouby, CEO of Affectiva, a Boston startup that was established. to commercialize the Media Lab research, adding that it is “eager to see what the future holds.

After our interview in his office was over, Newman was to prepare for the event with Baker and the president of MIT. The Media Lab was expected to announce a new educational initiative, Day of AI, that would create hands-on activities for K-12 students to help them understand the fundamentals of artificial intelligence – and how it can affect their lives. . The program includes learning about deepfake videos and biased algorithms.

AI Day is scheduled for May. And next spring, if COVID permits, the Media Lab will also welcome its corporate sponsors to the building for several days of demonstrations and discussions. By then, the lab may have turned the page, fully occupied, and definitely into the Newman era.

“If Dava can get everyone to look to the future, that’s a good thing,” said Rob Poor, who received his PhD at the lab, “because looking to the future and saying ‘what if … . ”Is at the heart of what the Media Lab does best.

Scott Kirsner can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on twitter @ScottKirsner.



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